Aeroplanes fly by propelling themselves forward with enough speed that the air flowing over the wing can lift the entire machine off the ground. Few people forget the first time they take off at the controls of a small aeroplane!
The first aeroplane to fly only managed a 36-metre flight, but barely a decade later the aeroplane was at war, which developed its capabilities at a dramatic rate. Despite the first use of airliners and the emergence of ‘Barnstorming’ (stunt flying) in the inter-war years, it wasn’t until the second world war that the aeroplane’s full capability was explored, ushering in the jet age. Initially, the focus was on speed and then capacity. Technology in the jet age accelerated rapidly as the major powers in the cold war raced for the advantage in military capability. Now, in civil aviation at least, the focus is more on economy. Future airliners are likely to use green fuels, perhaps even moving to electric propulsion, and the advent of Urban Air Mobility projects such as CityAirbus are set to further revolutionise air transport.
Despite humble beginnings and developments designed for niche tasks, fixed-wing aircraft have one major advantage over other types of flying machine; speed and payload. Aeroplanes can typically carry more, faster than anything else of a similar size, because using fixed wings is currently the most efficient way to generate lift. All the engine’s power is used to deliver thrust, building up the speed that those wings require in order to work. Some aeroplanes use jet propulsion for thrust, others use an engine-driven propeller. All except very few need a runway, so that they can get up to take-off speed and decelerate after landing.
Learning to fly aeroplanes does not need a specific academic skill set, nor does it require exceptional coordination. Aeroplanes, particularly those used for training, are designed to be stable and predictable. Aeroplanes must stay above a certain speed to keep flying though, so in the early stages of training, student pilots sometimes find that keeping up with the aircraft becomes difficult; there’s no pulling over to read the map! Advanced skills are all built upon the basics that are taught early, and some people find recalling these early techniques harder than others, particularly if they have had a long break between training flights. All in all, there is no reason why anybody who has the capacity to drive a car shouldn’t be able to learn to pilot an aeroplane.
If you are interested in learning to fly aeroplanes, the best place to start is a trial lesson at a flying club. There are hundreds in the UK and thousands worldwide, and you can take a flying lesson at most without any commitment to further training. If you’re planning on flying for a career, you may wish to train on an Integrated course. These deliver all the necessary skills to develop you into a professional pilot as quickly as possible, but they are typically very expensive and will likely require prerequisite qualifications, such as aptitude tests. If you wish to take a more gradual approach to training, or if you only want to fly for leisure, you can train for a Private Pilot License (PPL). This is much cheaper, but you won’t be able to make money from your flying until you’ve built some experience and passed the additional tests for commercial flying. You can start to learn to fly as soon as you can reach all the controls, but you must be 16 to fly solo, and 18 to hold a commercial license.
If you’ve qualified on an Integrated course, then your next step will be to find work and begin building seniority as a professional aviator, usually this is as a First Officer with an airline. Once you have enough experience, you will be offered greater responsibility and eventually the chance to qualify as the aircraft Captain, who has sole responsibility for the aircraft and everybody on board. As a Private Pilot you will also have that responsibility, but you will be limited in the numbers of passengers you can carry and you won’t be allowed to earn money. If you wish to train professionally you can undertake training for your Commercial Pilot License and build your skills incrementally towards professional qualification, known as Modular training. This involves a lot of theoretical and practical training, exams and the necessity to fly to a high standard and make good decisions. All qualified pilots can learn to fly different classes of aeroplane, such as those having more than one engine or sea planes. You can also learn to fly at night and in poor visibility, or train to fly aerobatics. Many of these skills are part of both the Integrated and Modular training courses.
Integrated training is generally designed to provide junior First Officers to the airlines. After your type-rating on a passenger aircraft you will conduct line-training where you will learn the company operating procedures before you begin flying as a First Officer in the right hand seat of an airliner. Promotion to Captain is usually based on seniority, so depending on your airline it could be a long wait to get your command. Modular courses aren’t as closely linked to airlines so you might find yourself hour-building by doing aerial work, such as flying parachute drop aircraft, while you apply for jobs. While there are niche opportunities for some, such as flying float planes or bush-flying, the unique challenges of these jobs generally appeal to few, and most newly qualified commercial pilots aim for the airlines if they can find an opening. If service to your country appeals to you, the military will train you to fly for free without any prior experience. While this is an exciting career, there are strict entry standards and minimum service durations, so it is not a free ride.
The cost of training varies wildly according to what your ambitions are. An Integrated course with a good school is likely to cost over £100,000 whereas the Modular route could land you the same qualifications for less than half the price, but without the employment connections. A basic PPL to enable you to fly light aircraft in the UK only will be a fraction of that cost, coming in typically at well under £10,000 provided that you are able to pick up the skills in the minimum time required.